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Robert Elsie

Albanian folktales and legends
Selected and translated from the Albanian

Naim Frashëri, Tirana 1994
223 pp.


    Folk tales and legends are still very much alive in the mountains of Albania, a land of haunted history. They are recited in the evenings after a day's work or out in the fields, are learned by heart and pass, as if immortal, from one generation to the next. Whose imagination could not be captured by the cunning of the Scurfhead, by the demands of the Earthly Beauty, by the heroic feats of Mujo and Halil or by the appearance of a fiery Kulshedra in the forest?
    The fundamental theme of Albanian folk tales, as no doubt of folk tales everywhere, is the struggle between good and evil, a reflection of social values as we perceive them. The cautious reader may rest assured from the start that in the fantastic world of Albanian folk literature the good always win out.
    Oral literature is known to preserve many archaic elements. Albanian folk tales reveal not only a number of oriental features from the centuries when Albania formed an integral part of the Ottoman Empire but indeed also the occasional trace of the ancient world of Greco-Roman mythology. Pashas and dervishes abound in an otherwise eminently European context. The evident patriarchal structure in the tales and the passive, secondary roles attributed to female characters reflect Albania's traditionally Moslem society. In the first half of the twentieth century, about 70% of the Albanian population was Moslem, 20% Orthodox and 10% Catholic.
    Yet despite their oriental background and the remoteness of Albanian culture, one of the last in Europe to withstand the onslaught of our high-tech monoculture, many of the tales will have a surprisingly familiar ring to the Western reader.
    Albanian folk tales were first recorded in the middle of the nineteenth century by European scholars such as Johann Georg von Hahn (1854), the Austrian consul in Janina (Ioannina), Karl H. Reinhold (1855) and Giuseppe Pitrè (1875). The next generation of scholars to take an interest in the collection of Albanian folk tales were primarily philologists, among them well-known Indo-European linguists concerned with recording and analysing a hitherto little known European language: Auguste Dozon (1879, 1881), Jan Jarnik (1883), Gustav Meyer (1884, 1888), Holger Pedersen (1895), Gustav Weigand (1913) and August Leskien (1915).
    The nationalist movement in Albania in the second half of the nineteenth century, the so-called Rilindja period, gave rise to native collections of folklore material such as the 'Albanian Bee' (Albanike melissa / Belietta sskiypetare) by Thimi Mitko (1878), the 'Albanian Spelling Book' (Albanikon alfavetarion / Avabatar arbëror) by the Greco-Albanian Anastas Kullurioti (1882) and the 'Waves of the Sea' (Valët e Detit) by Spiro Dine (1908). In the last thirty years, much field work has been done by the Institute of Folk Culture in Tirana and by the Institute of Albanian Studies in Prishtina, which have published numerous collections of folk tales and legends. Unfortunately, very little of this substantial material has been translated into other languages.
    The only substantial collections of Albanian folk tales to have appeared in English up to the present, as far as I am aware, are Tricks of women and other Albanian tales by Paul Fenimore Cooper (New York 1928), which was translated from the collections of Dozon and Pedersen, and Albanian wonder tales by Post Wheeler (London 1936). The present volume of Albanian tales endeavours to be as faithful as possible in style and content to the original Albanian texts which were recorded from word of mouth in a relatively unelaborate code.
    Included in this collection are not only folk tales but prose versions of a selection of well-known Albanian legends (based originally on historical or mythological events and figures). The adventures of Mujo and Halil and their band of mountain warriors are still told and indeed sung in epic verse in the northern Albanian mountains, and the exploits of the great Scanderbeg, the Albanian national hero who freed large parts of the country from Turkish rule in the fifteenth century, are recounted everywhere Albanians gather, as if events five centuries old had taken place yesterday.
    It remains for me to thank the many people who have assisted me in this project, among whom the late Qemal Haxhihasani of the Institute of Folk Culture (Tirana), staff members of the Institute of Linguistics and Literature (Tirana) and of the Institute of Albanian Studies (Prishtina), as well as Barbara Schultz (Ottawa) for her kind revision of the manuscript.
    Robert Elsie
    Eifel mountains, Germany


  • Introduction
  • Albanian folk tales
    The boy and the Earthly Beauty
    The scurfhead
    The three friends and the Earthly Beauty
    The three brothers and the three sisters
    The youth and the maiden with stars on their foreheads and crescents on their breasts
    The shoes
    The girl who became a boy
    The maiden in the box
    The tale of the youth who understood the language of the animals
    The Stirrup Moor
    The king's daughter and the skull
    The bear and the dervish
    The snake and the king's daughter
    Gjizar the nightingale
    Half Rooster
    The boy with no name
    The barefaced man and the Pasha's brother
    The foolish youth and the ring
    The princess of China
    The jealous sisters
    The grateful snake and the magic case
    The maiden who was promised to the sun
  • Albanian legends
    Mujo's strength
    Mujo and the Zanas
    Halil's marriage
    Mujo and Halil visit the Sultan
    Mujo avenges Halil's death
    Gjergj Elez Alia
    Aga Ymer of Ulcinj
    Scanderbeg and Ballaban
    Shega and Vllastar
    Rozafat Castle
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

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